Tens of thousands of low-income families miss up to £442 in government aid each year to pay for healthy food amid major IT outages, a Guardian analysis shows.
Campaigners are urging the government to fix the NHS Healthy Start scheme as the cost of living crisis and food price inflation hit household budgets.
The benefit, which helps low-income parents and pregnant women pay for fruits, vegetables, milk and formula, has been plagued with problems since it switched from paper vouchers to a digital card last year.
Eligible families are told they are not entitled to the aid, prepaid cards are declined at the register and it is too difficult to reach the helpline, charities say.
About 52,000 families who previously used the scheme have not successfully applied for the cards, according to official figures. In addition, many more eligible households have never filed a claim.
The Healthy Start Facebook page is flooded with complaints from frustrated parents.
The government’s food strategy white paper ignores digitization issues and calls for the scheme to be expanded, boasting instead that it “has made it easier for young families to apply for and use the Healthy Start Scheme”.
Jonathan Pauling, the chief executive of the Alexandra Rose Charity, which has a separate voucher system in London, Liverpool, Barnsley and Glasgow, said: “No family should be without food. This is not just a cost of living crisis, but a health crisis that can have a lifelong impact.
“It is crucial that the problems with the digitization of the Healthy Start scheme are addressed as soon as possible. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of families are without the fruits and vegetables and formula they need for their children.”
Chloe MacKean, business engagement manager at the Food Foundation, said the delays in resolving the digitization issues were “just cruel”.
She added: “The government must do more to help the unprecedented number of families deprived of essential nutrients due to the cost of living crisis.”
Healthy Start, launched in 2006, is available to universal credit applicants earning £408 or less per month and child tax credit applicants with an annual income of £16,190 or less.
People with past legacy, including income support, jobseeker allowance, pension discount and work tax credit, can also claim.
It is worth £4.25 for each week of pregnancy from 10 weeks onwards, then £8.50 per week for children up to one year old and £4.25 per week for children up to four years old.
The value of the benefit was last increased in April 2021 for the first time since 2009 under pressure from campaigners including Marcus Rashford, but it has not increased again this year despite the rising costs of many of the things it was designed to do. Pay.
The money was previously distributed as paper vouchers that could be exchanged at supermarkets, but these have been phased out as of March 31 and replaced by a prepay card, which is topped up every four weeks.
However, the rollout, which started in the fall last year, has been fraught with difficulties, leaving struggling families with the support they deserve.
According to figures from the NHS Business Services Authority, the poor body of the Department of Health and Social Care, 547,662 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were eligible for the scheme in March, with 392,694 claimants receiving the benefit.
On April 29, 288,963 households received the benefit. It is not possible to make a comparable comparison as NHSBSA has started registering households rather than individual beneficiaries.
However, it confirmed that on May 19, 52,000 households that had previously received paper vouchers had not successfully applied for the new payments.
Sofia Parente, the policy and campaign coordinator at food charity Sustain, said: “There are still a large number of families – mainly women – who really need the scheme and are not receiving the payments.”
Jade Martin, 25, went by six months without receiving the money for her daughter, saying a Healthy Start counselor told her to go to a food bank while she waited for payment.
The single mother of two, who has universal credit, said, “Every time I call them, they just refer me to the local food bank, but my daughter needs a specific kind of formula.
‘I told them, ‘I don’t have any milk, so what should I do?’ They have all the evidence they need to support my claim.”
A mother of two, who owed nearly £100 before receiving the back pay in May, said the problems started when she switched to the digital card.
“In general, I’m quite frugal, I still work part-time but don’t earn much. I spend it all on the boys and their clothes and activities. I’ve never taken them on holiday, we shop at Lidl, Poundland, Wilko, we try to manage our finances tightly,” she said.
“But with the cost of living going up, it all adds up and I’ve just had to make sacrifices and put the kids first.”
NHSBSA admitted in April that there had been a technical problem, which resulted in applications being rejected.
It said the issue was resolved quickly, affecting only a small number of claimants.
The Guardian understands that the system automatically rejected anyone with an outstanding universal credit payment, although this has not been confirmed by NHSBSA.
Families with legacy benefits still cannot apply online and must submit a claim either by phone or email.
Current problems with online applications are caused by a mismatch between the details families provide about Healthy Start claims and their DWP benefit records, NHSBSA said.
Meanwhile, payment arrears will only be granted if people can prove that they have tried to apply, such as providing a screenshot.
Parents and pregnant women have reported having trouble reaching the Healthy Start helpline and having their payment card declined in stores.
A spokesperson for the NHSBSA said: “We appreciate that the phone lines are extremely busy.
“The NHSBSA provides several essential services to support those in need. All NHSBSA Contact Center staff are versatile in the services we offer, and support is provided over the phone and via email and social media, as well as through a number of automated self-service options that customers can use without having to speak to an agent .”
They added: “There are several reasons why a card may be declined in the store.
“Anyone who has issues with their card is encouraged to review our FAQs to see if any of these reasons apply to them before contacting them.”